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Meetings Are the Worst. Here’s What You Can Do About It

There’s one simple question you can ask to make sure you’re not wasting hours of your workday

Let me tell you something about the best job I’ve ever had: Everyone actually liked each other; the office got along really well; there was camaraderie, respect for each other’s work, collaborative thinking and even time for some horsin’ around to come up with good ideas.

The meetings still also totally sucked.

Why? Because of the six or eight people in that room, there were still those people. There’s the dude who won’t stop punning it up. The guy who never brings a good idea. The lady who uses the time to talk about herself. And the leader too timid to rein that shit in, so unproductive talks would sometimes go two to three hours.

It’s not surprising then to hear Harvard Business Review has determined meetings should never involve more than five to eight people, because at that number it’s actually logistically impossible to be productive. But capping meeting size also isn’t the fix it sounds like. You’re still dealing with people — and people, no matter the number, must be reined in.

Meetings are admittedly a very unsexy topic. God knows we’ve tried to make this sexy. Thanks to tech startups and their obsession with disruption, there are a number of companies that, bless their hearts, go out of their way to make meetings “fun” by doing off-the-wall shit to really get those group sessions kicking. Examples: Let employees color during meetings! Take the meeting to a basketball court and hold the meeting while shooting hoops! Make anyone who comes late to the meeting sing the national anthem! Wire the meeting room to shut off the lights in exactly 30 minutes, no matter who’s talking! The last person talking when the meeting was supposed to end has to do 50 pushups! (Hope you’re fit.)

But experts say this isn’t really necessary to run a good meeting — or even attend one without wanting to lobotomize yourself. Here are their tips…

It’s Not How Many People or How Long

“It’s not about making meetings shorter, but instead about making them worthwhile,” Lisa Barrington, employment coach and CEO of Barrington Coaching, writes to me via email. “Meetings run by men and women alike go awry when people use meetings to advance their own agenda, when there are no guidelines or agreement about the purpose of the meeting(s), when people come without advance opportunity to review in-depth materials and when incoherent teams engage in dysfunctional behavior.”

So how do we fix it?

Realize That Meetings Aren’t the Problem

The main trouble with meetings isn’t meetings — it’s people.

Yes, meetings waste an extraordinary amount of time and money — $37 billion annually in costs, and around 15 percent of a company’s time. People spend, on average, about five hours a week in meetings, and then another four and change prepping for those meetings.

But it’s really the people in the room that get in the way. In any given meeting, a select few people are actually Giving Good Meeting. This means that they’re efficient, understand the purpose of the meeting, come prepared, contribute meaningfully, get to the point and then step out of the way so the meeting can move forward.

How do we make those who Give Bad Meeting act right, though?

Answer This Question

The number of people needed in a meeting depends on the point of the meeting. If it’s an all-staff meeting to announce a big change, obviously everyone needs to be there. Like life, we just need a reason. That seems obvious and simple, but it isn’t. That’s why Deborah Ostreicher, CEO of Distinguished Communications, says that you must “never call a meeting unless you know what the goal is. Be clear with invitees about what’s in it for them. Define the goal and parameters of the meeting at the start of the meeting.”

This way, you can’t go on these profoundly irritating tangents that annoy everyone. “Strategic planning, decisioning and exploring should occur in a meeting designed just for that purpose,” Barrington says. “Meeting cadence should align to the topic.”

So if you find yourself in a meeting and you don’t know why you’re there, try this magic question: “Ask, ‘Can you tell me what I’m listening for here?’” advises Carisa Miklusak, career expert and CEO of recruiter site tilr. “Since the desired outcomes of these meetings vary as much as the answers I receive, I’m able to quickly drive the conversation toward the desired next step. This question also encourages the person I’m meeting with to stay on course toward the resolution they’re after.”

You’re still going to have some troublemakers, of course, but there’s a fix for that too. Kerry Wekelo, an HR director for 13 years who’s now a consultant at Actualize Consulting, says they use the three P’s: pause, to pivot, to positive possibilities.

If things get heated or off-track, simply pause to take a breath and make sure you’ve heard someone. Then “pivot out of the angry or negative or blaming cycle,” she says. “Try to think of things from a third-person point-of-view. This can help you gain a better understanding of the situation at hand.” Finally, “explore a variety of positive possibilities,” which she says will get rid of the residual negative vibes in the room.

Sometimes the Worst People in the Meeting Are Your Superiors

If it all goes to pot, a good meeting leader will, as Ostreicher says, “have the courage to get it back on track if it strays from the goal.” But what if that person is your boss?

The reasons meetings put most of us in an existential K-hole is we literally lack the power to cancel them or opt out, and there’s no way to take over the meeting and force it to resolve.

Bringing this up with your superior depends on two things: How often does this happen, and what’s the boss’ ego like?

“If it’s systemic, and this is always happening, you could approach the boss in advance, and ask for the opportunity to facilitate the meeting,” she says. “Or facilitate meetings on this topic. Something like that. If there’s an ego issue, it’s a good idea to say, ‘This way I can take on these nuts and bolts and you can sit back as the strategic leader and executive.’ Just be sure you credit them. So you say, ‘Here’s so-and-so’s vision and goals for this meeting or issue,’ but you still take leadership in that meeting.”

If you’re not dealing with ego, Ostreicher says, the boss may actually be grateful. “They may say, ‘Yes please, take it, it’s yours.’ Just make sure you run goals by them and don’t take it in a direction that’s not what they wanted.”

Barrington says another idea is that if off-topic topics keep resurfacing, “offer to the group that you’d be glad to set up a separate meeting to dig into that topic with the focus it deserves. Then follow through by setting up a meeting to only address that topic, and role-model how separate meetings can be beneficial.”

What if you really don’t need to be in the meeting your boss holds? Is there a way to opt out? To cancel a useless meeting, that requires someone making your boss realize it’s useless. And that’s tricky business.

Ostreicher says her father taught her a direct approach for how to opt out of meetings: “Early in my career, I was being triple-booked at all times, running from one meeting to another. He told me, ‘Just say no.’ I did not straight-on just tell them no, but I did learn to ask the question, ‘What’s the agenda for this meeting?’ That’s where I learned most of the time people hadn’t thought this through. ‘What’s my role so I can ensure I’ll be the most effective?’”

Ostreicher says often you might find out you were being invited only as a courtesy, so you don’t really need to be there. But if it was a crucial meeting and it went on for two hours, she advises, ask which part of the meeting you’re needed for. “Sometimes that results in, ‘We’ll put you at the top so you can come in and participate for the part you’re needed.’”

This way you never sound like a jerk who isn’t committed to the cause. You sound efficient.

Of course, some bosses use meetings to enforce punctuality and attendance. What then?

“If I’m not being utilized in a moment, I’m doing something else on my laptop,” Ostreicher says. “So if there’s not a policy against having electronics, bring work. I bring it to every meeting because you never know when it’s not your time and not being utilized. Be efficient and get something else done. If you’re being asked just to show up on time and you’re not needed, then you’re within your right.”

Still Try to Have Fun

Plenty of meetings are necessary. By necessary, I mean inevitable, but sometimes important, too. There are new policies, big changes and actual work that must be strategized before it’s done. Ideas are valuable, and they can be tough to come up with in solitude. People tend to collaborate and brainstorm to solve problems. Work and performance reviews are far better in person.

That said, people should try to make meetings more tolerable and even fun: coffee, free bagels, wacky stress balls, whatever it takes. But also, we’re all adults here. Life means going to some fucking meetings! The best thing you can do is figure out how to Give Good Meeting instead of holding it hostage.

What Else Can You Do?

In large part, you really just have to be present (unless you’re in a meeting where not paying attention is barely noticed). Existing advice will tell you to simply endure the meeting by practicing something in your own head: mindfulness, breathing, listening skills, working out your novel. But this sort of thing is literally why most meetings are unproductive.

So in part, in order to make the meeting better, you have to really pay attention to what’s happening. “Meeting attendees should be required to be present,” Barrington says. “Simple. No electronics, unless [they’re] used to share something with the entire team.”

If All Else Fails

One last-ditch approach is to tell your boss you’ve been reading about how to hack meetings. “Tell them you’d love to try out one or two of the techniques, then see how she/he responds,” Barrington says. “If they’re open, share some ideas with them or have them read Pat Lencioni’s The Advantage (or Death by Meeting).”

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